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Interview: Louis Hayes (Part 1)

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Louis Hayes During the hard bop era of the 1950s and early 1960s, the Horace Silver Quintet was the most sublime expression of the movement. While Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet certainly were spectacular ensembles, what both groups lacked was Silver's spirited writing, arranging and verve. From the summer of 1956 until late 1959, when he was lured away by Cannonball Adderley, Louis Hayes was the quintet's drummer. [Photo by Lena Adasheva]

Though not technically the quintet's first drummer (that honor belongs to Kenny Clarke and Art Taylor), Louis did the most to shape the group's jittery-aggressive style, fortifying and complementing Silver's hypnotic, funky piano patterns. Unlike Blakey, whose drum work packed the punch of a cattle drive, Louis was more delicate, delivering a madhouse of intricate rhythms with a lighter touch. To understand how Louis revolutionized hard bop drumming, just listen to any of his six albums with Silver.

In Part 1 of my three-part interview with Louis on his Horace Silver period, the 73-year-old hard bop drummer talks about growing up in Detroit and coming to music at an early age:

JazzWax: What was Detroit like growing up in the 1940s?
Louis Hayes: My father was the one who interested me and my cousin Clarence Stamp in music. My cousin was a drummer. He would have been a drummer of note had he continued. He was 10 years older than I was. I'm the only student he ever had. He could read music well and he taught me how to play the drums. My cousin was responsible for the way I've always thought when playing with a group. He said, “If anything goes wrong in the band, it's your fault. As a drummer, you have control of the group." [Pictured: Detroit in the 1940s]

JW: What did your father do for a living?
LH: He worked at Ford Motor. He also played drums and piano, and gigged for a time in Detroit. But then he just played when he was at home. A piano was pretty much in everyone's home before TV. So I started out playing piano. But my father's drums were always there, all set up. One day when I was about 8 years old, I began playing with them, and my father gave me a little drum pad to practice on.

JW: What was it about the drums?
LH: I don't know. The drums were just enjoyable to play. The piano was a chore. With the drums, no one had to tell me to practice. My father could see early that I could do certain things on there and was impressed. But he didn't want me to play for a living. He knew how hard music was as a way to earn money, especially with all the competition in Detroit.

JW: Did you listen to records?
LH: Absolutely. Kenny Clarke [pictured], Max Roach and all the big bands then. My father was listening to them, so I had access to the records. He listened to music all the time. He had the kind of record player you wound up and put the needle on.

JW: Did your mother enjoy music?
LH: Very much so. My mother was very religious and played piano. She'd take me to church, and I'd experience the choirs. Those emotional, spiritual feelings in the church played an important role shaping me as an artist. My mom used to take me to some churches where the choir was so strong you couldn't help but get the feeling.

JW: Why did you choose jazz?
LH: I was around r&b quite a bit, but I always was drawn to jazz. I loved listening to Charlie Parker, and I paid close attention to the way he built his solos and his ability to play his instrument at that level. My cousin taught me how the drums needed to be played so you'd always know you were in tune and in step with everyone else.

JW: Meaning that you had to know the song's lyrics and melody as well as the tempo?
LH: Exactly. You have to know the tune cold, so when you accent with the sticks or brushes, it's coming in just the right places. I listened carefully to tunes and knew all the chord changes.

JW: But if a song is new to you, how do you figure out what to play on the drums? LH: You can develop an ability to hear whatever amount of  bars and chord changes are in a tune. You have to feel it in your head.

JW: Did you play in groups as a teen?
LH: When I was growing up, there were a lot of young musicians in Detroit who could play on a high level. Many of my friends were like this. So we'd get together at our homes to play.

JW: Did you play in high school?
LH: At first, the jazz groups didn't let me in. Each city had its jazz cliques. In Detroit in the late 1940s, you had Kenny Burrell, Barry Harris, Tommy Flanagan, Elvin Jones, Yusef Lateef and others. I had my own compadres but I wasn't on the level of those other guys. But I kept working and pushing.

JW: Did you ever feel discouraged?
LH: Never. I always knew I was going to make a mark one day. But I was afraid to play around those older guys. At first I didn't want them to know I played music or drums. I had an ego, which is important, and didn't want it crushed. Detroit was a place where musicians constantly challenged each other. Me and my buddies would go to different clubs to watch the musicians on their jobs, as though we were just going to listen. Then when musicians weren't cutting it, we'd take their jobs [laughs]. That built our confidence without putting our egos on the spot.

JW: You eventually played locally with Yusef Lateef and Curtis Fuller.
LH: That was when I was 18. I knew Yusef, but he wasn't aware of me. After I auditioned for him, he came to my house to tell me I had the job. But, he said, “I'm going to give you six-week trial period."

JW: What did you say?
LH: Fantastic. The only problem was that I would be playing at Klein's Show Bar, and you were supposed to be 21 to do that. I was only 18.

JW: What happened?
LH: No one paid any attention to my age, and we had a marvelous time. I learned to be professional there. With Yusef, we played four and five days a week, and the musicians were older. You either grow to that level fast or you didn't make it.

JW: Was that your first professional job?
LH: No. I had started a group at age 15 playing for money, but we played in teenage clubs where alcohol wasn't served and younger people could come and listen.

JW: Whose drums did you use on those early gigs?
LH: My dad's. He had a Slingerland set, and it was good. I had everything a young person would need on that kit—even things that were square [laughs].

JW: Like what?
LH: Things that drummers used in 20s and 30s, like skull heads and woodblocks, that I thought were antique. So I didn't keep them. I should have, though. I used the set until I was 17. Then my dad bought me a new kit, another Slingerland set.

JW: How did your job with Yusef work out?
LH: I lost it. The manager at Klein's Show Bar eventually found out I was 18, not 21.

JazzWax clip: To understand Louis Hayes' brilliance, dig what he does on the drums to build tension on How Did It Happen from Horace Silver's Blowin' the Blues Away (1959). Check out the fanfare intro by the horns and catch exactly where Hayes comes in at different points. Try not to be distracted by the horns—focus solely on the drums. Replay the clip a few times if necessary to hear the intro. Wild, right?...


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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved.
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